First Month (and a bit) of PebblePad

It seems that the basic uses of an eportfolio platform are easy as pie for our campus. We’re now at the mid-to-highly complex uses that I thought we might see before this – which begs a question. Is it that no one wanted to push the boundaries of the older system, or was it that the boundaries weren’t worth pushing? Or maybe we weren’t ready to push? I’ve often said I’ve built a career out of workarounds and getting systems to do what they weren’t meant to do. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to do that – with LTI and ubiquitous acceptance of embed codes from social sites – there’s not a lot of need to bend systems.

However, getting acquainted with a new system (full caveat I had access to the older version of the system for almost two months before PebblePad was turned on September 2nd), while trying to wrap my head around some of the complex asks has been challenging for an old brain like me. For instance, wanting peer marking, peer review and feedback, but not allowing other peers to see the graded assessment or the graded feedback, yet allowing for a commentary feedback to exist on the item, and the assessor can provide a final grade based on the accumulated individual feedback from other students. In a class of close to 80 students. Turns out, not a problem. Even with some initial missteps, it was relatively simple to setup and have working (with some significant help from PebblePad support).

Flexibility for what students can do in the system? No problem. We’ve got one class that’s given workspaces to all their project groups giving them full access to that area to configure how they like. They just can’t remove managers (the instructors) or give grades. They could if their role was configured for it, and the instructors wanted that. That kind of power in a system is really something I’ve missed with the major LMS vendors (and believe me, I’ve asked for the power to give instructors the ability to give students a sandboxed area to add their own content, create their own assignments, etc. etc.). We’ve got another doing peer review. We’ve got another doing typical portfolio stuff – where the student assembles a portfolio and submits that to a lone marker.

I don’t want to sound like a pitch man for PebblePad, but honestly, in a decade plus of working with learning systems, putting in tickets and generally working with educational technology, I’ve never had better service than I do with PebblePad. Tickets are answered intelligently within 24 business hours, most often resolved within that time. Now maybe that’s me, finding easy problems to solve… but only one ticket has lasted longer than a week, and it was to do with the iOS app that was mostly waiting for Apple to approve the app’s update. Which is a huge testament to the people working at PebblePad.

With that said, we’re working with version 5 of PebblePad, and I’m starting to get at some of the limitations. The first one, is that you can’t embed anything into the system except YouTube videos. Students just don’t use YouTube – in fact many use Vimeo, Prezi, Slideshare, Vine and any number of other sites would be nice to embed that right on a portfolio page rather than link it. Now, having spoken to them about it, they’ve stated that they will look at it and see if there’s something they can do to branch out from just YouTube (I suggested adding Prezi, Vimeo, Slideshare, and a couple other ubiquitous sites). There was some security concerns about rogue embeds, but I’m sure they can figure out a solution. Most of the limitations I’m seeing currently will be gone when version 5 and 3 have parity in February – and some were addressed in the November 15th update – again a good thing to see with a company.

So over a month in, I’m really, really impressed. I don’t often get ebullient with external companies (in fact I’m usually very critical of edtech capitalism), as I’ve seen companies grow and what that growth means for the clients,  I hope the future is as bright as the present.

Full disclosure: I was invited to attend a week’s advanced training at PebblePad HQ in the UK. My work paid for the flight, Pebble Learning paid for a week’s accomodation as well as meals and drinks. I don’t think that my opinion can be bought with a week’s accomodation and food (we did have a lovely time), nor change my opinion of the product. Your opinion and mine may vary.

Digital Marginalia 2 – Electric Boogaloo

Digital Marginalia is an infrequent blog post series that captures some links I’ve retweeted or looked at, grouped into a theme, and commented on.

Disrupting Education/Learning – Whatever that Means

There’s two related bunch of links that are tied here; the first being the onslaught of Richard Branson, Disrupting Education:

And the response:

It’s strange because I understand what Branson’s saying, and yes, education needs more flexible education. But to criticize something he doesn’t really know, because he didn’t go into it forty years ago, and isn’t part of it now, and clearly doesn’t get that in fact, higher education does do a lot of the things he says it doesn’t. Business schools basically train their graduates to be startups. Many, many MBA programs have that as their overarching theme. Our Master’s level Engineering program is based on a business project model with real clients. We aren’t unique in this. Our Geography department have several trips to real world places to do the work that they will do post-graduation. When I went to community college a decade ago, we took several entrepreneurship classes, because they knew that software designers would likely be their own bosses. Should things be more flexible? Yes. Often the reason things aren’t flexible is because someone, somewhere along the line bought a student information system that can’t schedule things in less than three hour blocks, or doesn’t understand that a course isn’t 14 weeks. That’s the sort of flexibility that the private sector brings you. Get real, Branson. Martin Weller said it better (first link under responses) so go read his post and give it some love because it’s so terribly spot on.

“LRNG redesigns learning for the 21st century so that all youth have an opportunity to succeed.”

Really, I don’t have any non-vulgar words… OK here’s a fact you may want to consider, YOU CANNOT REDESIGN HOW I LEARN. I control how I learn. YOU control how you communicate information to me; I control how I receive that information. If you do not agree, then you are working on a paradigm that reinforces that students are empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge. Again, I agree with connecting someone’s passion with learning, doing it through an online medium, sure that’s awesome. I love the Cities of Learning program, I really do. Just “redesigning learning” is like saying you’re “redesigning eating”.

Closing of the Open Web–with-no-comments-allowed

Commenting, whether you think it valuable or not, is one of the best features of the world wide web. The amount of time I’ve found something in the comments of an article that links to another great thing is staggering to think about. The Vice thing is kind of delicious, in that after years of cultivating this vacuous audience (looks directly at Dos & Don’ts) they now want a civilized discussion. I guess people can grow up, but instead of turning off comments, why don’t you do like many other places and cultivate the commentary by moderating it. That way, you approve the good stuff and your audience doesn’t have to change the way they interact with the site.


Google and privacy? Uhhh, the jokes write themselves.

Undoubtedly, not all of what Facebook tells itself about you.

Manditory watching. Glenn Greenwald is one of the most important journalists of our time. Seriously undervalued/rated.






First Week of Using PebblePad

A little preamble.

We’ve been looking at bringing on a second ePortfolio platform since January. We’ve used the D2L ePortfolio platform for two years, with some significant gains, but with quite a few growing pains. The tool doesn’t seem to be getting much focus from D2L – instead they seem to be looking at mobile ePortfolios the last few years. While that’s great, and the app is very, very slick, the way we authenticate to our LMS prevents us from using any of the D2L developed apps; Assignment Grader, ePortfolio, Binder, Pulse, none of them will work for us because of the way we authenticate. Changing our authentication process is on our list of things to do, but isn’t going to happen soon (think: one to two years).

While ePortfolio is a good tool for individual use in context of classroom activity, it doesn’t really do co-curricular stuff well without a bunch of workarounds, like creating a course to house the co-curricular activity. It works well in a mentorship situation (where the mentor is an instructor in a class). It also doesn’t allow people to collaborate effectively. You can share a presentation, giving the other person full rights to edit, but for some weird design reason, you cannot edit anything that exists in the presentation. Even with permission to edit the underlying artifact. This was a deal breaker for a few faculty in large classes. Critical reflection in a social space is something our faculty want, our students want and the literature suggests might be more effective at challenging underlying fundamental thinking.

So we started looking at options.

I tried to advocate for a Domain of One’s Own style project using WordPress as a base for how students could construct a “portfolio” – but too many people felt that it couldn’t adapt to a curriculum based approach where an instructor type person could securely grade and provide individual feedback. People that have used WordPress understand that you can in fact, do just that, but it take a little more work. All else fails there’s e-mail right? Honestly, I didn’t think this option would gain much ground, it’s too radical for our campus, and not necessarily a perfect, easy fit for our needs.

We looked at other providers, Known, Digication, Mahara (and holy crap if you think D2L ePortfolio produces elderly looking portfolios, Mahara looks like warm garbage strewn across an empty strip mall from the 80’s) and a number of free solutions (including Pathbrite). Nothing really did all of the things that we wanted – we needed a pretty broad tool that could do many different things (including co-curriculum uses, personal uses, group/shared uses, curricular uses and finally, a mentor/mentee communication tool).

After putting the others through the review process, we ended up selecting PebblePad and began planning. Negotiation took a bit longer than we liked, but all in all, we turned on the system on September 2nd. We didn’t have time to do single sign-on, or connect the Student Information System to it, or our authentication system. Basically we have a link in the LMS that takes the student/user to the login page and they authenticate to an account I’ve created (to date, 7260 accounts). It also means that the assessment areas in PebblePad – called ATLAS –  (which are distinct from assessment in the LMS) were created manually by me (about 40 so far).

The fact that we turned on the system and did some minor configuration and started running within hours (albeit in a hosted environment) was pretty pleasant. There’s been no major issues (so far). There’s been no real questions come in to ask about “how do I?” – mostly about “can I get an account?” I’ll update in a month or so how things have gone to that date in the future.

D2L Badges (If I Designed the Badges In the Image of the Work I’m Doing)

I’ve been working with badges for over a year now, and we’re finally starting to put together a program that will help identify skills, have students award other students badges, and make up essentially a co-curricular record for students.

Internally we struggled (and still struggle) with the software and the design – early ones had easy to achieve badges which didn’t mean much; later iterating into something a bit more robust. I wanted to share what we’re doing but people are also looking at researching our efforts, so I’ve had to abstract that a little bit to share the design, but not the specifics. So I looked around and thought about the things I know that might be transferrable. At the same time D2L has announced that the Learning Environment for continuous delivery clients will get a badging application in the September update. Aha! The badges of D2L. It’s not a perfect analogy, but bear with me, I think there’s some important parallels that should be easy to decipher. First, some history.

Many people who have been through an LMS review will tell you that selecting the software  is not just about features, it’s more about the people behind the software. Much like badges, it’s not about the image that they project, but the metadata that they contain within. So for the purposes of “badging D2L” I’ve decided to take the well known public faces of D2L and apply badges to them. It works as a parallel for the work we’re doing around building a co-curricular record.

topdogThe top of the hierarchy is easy, it’s the Top Dog badge. This badge is awarded for people who are involved in a wide variety of things, evangelize the D2L experience, are endlessly positive and feel like a trusted companion or a good friend. Who would be the best person to represent the Top badge? Founder and CEO John Baker is clearly the most well-known of all D2L employees. Most customers, industry analysts (amazing that EdTech has analysts now), and will think of John Baker when thinking about D2L. Always interested in his clients, and endlessly positive about the D2L products – John fits the top of the hierarchy (and the characteristics of our badges).

Just underneath the Top Dog badge, we have three other that one has to earn, before getting the Top badge. The Community badge, Productivity badge and Development badge.

The community badge could be earned for contributing and developing a sense of community around D2L products.

After John Baker, Barry Dahl is in the #2 spot of people well known within D2L – that can communitybe within the EdTech community (via the Desire2Blog he authored prior to joining D2L), or the Teaching and Learning community (via the D2L Brightspace Community, or the many regional forums that D2L hosts around North America). He has been a D2L award winner multiple times (prior to going to work for them, of course), been on the main stage at Fusion multiple times, probably upwards of a hundred webinars and is just generally well-known throughout the D2L customer base. In fact, I’d say that if you became a client of D2L in the last 5 or 6 years you’d be very likely to know Barry, much like how I got to know Barry, through the community around D2L’s products. Never mind the fact that Barry was a “face” of D2L before being hired by D2L. He was critical of the product at times, but always out there helping the community around the D2L Learning Environment.

For the Productivity badge, the earner has to be able to be a part of different aspects of a project, responding to other member’s (and community) ideas in an inclusive, respectful and productive manner.

productivityThe Productivity bages is represented by Ken Chapman. Ken as VP of Market Strategy is certainly one of the more prominent D2L people due to his longevity with the company and  his engagement in many different forums; including Fusion, webinars, client visits, and  the like. Funny, I went to D2L’s site to grab a picture of Ken for the badge, but he’s not listed under the  “Leadership” page on their website.

The last badge at the first tier would be the Development badge. This badge would be earned by demonstrating the development of themselves, the community and/or project.

developmentThe Development badge is represented by Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer at D2L. Another long-term employee (one of the originals, I think) who has had pretty high visibility at Fusion and in all the other venues  where  you  have a chance to get to know these people. One caveat here  is that lots of D2L customers know who Jeremy is, but I’m betting that very few can actually tell you what he does (I’m sure it’s something…). The badge is sufficiently vague, like a title that is bestowed on a chief strategy officer. I kid, I kid, cleary D2L’s strategic efforts in their three markets (K-12, Higher Ed, Corporate) must pass through Jeremy.

As you might well know, badges can be cumulative or solitary. I’d imagine that would be the case if I were explaining D2L’s badging hierarchy, and not McMaster’s approach to badging co-curricular activities. So the next level below might be made up of two or more badges that could earn you the Community, Productivity and Development badges. If we were to further drill down D2L’s hierarchy, lesser badges might be represented by some other well known D2L people.

For the Development side of things: Probably Nick Oddson, Sr. VP of Product Development.  Nick hasn’t been at D2L all that long, but he has had high profile announcements at the past couple of Fusion conferences. If he sticks around, he will more and more become one of the faces of D2L. Another person might be Paul Janzen, who’s very active in the Valence community and on the development side of things.

For the Productivity side of things: Mike Moore another employee who came out of education and who gets lots of face time related to the Insights analytics product line and learning outcomes (which are currently undergoing a revamp).

For the Community side of things: Maybe controversial (depending on when you became a D2L client, you might look for Jason Santos here, but in my opinion he’s too new), but I’d choose Terri-Lynn Brown for this spot since it is based on who the best-known employees are, not the most “important” (whatever that means). Terri-Lynn is a Calgary resident and a former K-12 educator who still is very well known within that market, and across Canada.

After that, we could go on with this exercise, but I think you get the idea. If I had made this post a few years ago, it would be a radically different post – filled with names that resonated maybe a little more. I wonder if the changes we’ve felt as clients of D2L will spill forward into the product.

Like badges spilled forward into the latest update.

LMS Review

So our current contract with our LMS vendor is complete in October 2018. I can’t say what we’ll do, but the landscape has changed somewhat since the last LMS review was done at work, so we’re starting to form a committee to look at our options. Ultimately, we’re doing this so far in advance because you should take at least a year to transition, which would put us at fall 2017 for starting to roll out the new system for users, which means that we’d need to know in the spring of 2017. Maybe the cost of change will scare us into another contract. As I see it, there’s four options available to us.

1. Stay with D2L. This is the easiest answer, and least complicated. We’ve been relatively happy with them as a company so there’s really no need to change, and despite the minor blips (the great outage of 2012) it’s been pretty smooth so far. Maybe continuous delivery will be awesome, and really a review of the LMS will be a mere formality.

2. Move to another hosted LMS. This is the second easiest answer – if the campus decides that D2L isn’t the choice for us, then we choose another vendor, enter into protracted negotiations, and go through the formal process of getting vendors to submit to review, tender offers, and go through the motions with selecting a new partner for the next five years. I’m not sure if the campus will think this is an option at all. Blackboard was our previous LMS, and didn’t work – essentially leaving the campus without a functional LMS for a whole semester. By the time it did start working, the relationship was in trouble, and well, that’s why we have D2L. That’s according to faculty who were here during the time it happened, which was prior to my time. Another seismic shift may not be in the cards. Another factor is that we’ve become a PeopleSoft school for our various systems across campus. That implementation has been rough for the campus. I’m not sure they have the appetite for another system to learn so quickly.

3. Go back to self-hosting LMS software. This allows us to look at open source solutions, and rely on our own IT group to take server maintenance, infrastructure and all the other associated risks back under our roof. It’s unlikely that we would do this due to the human cost of running a mission critical server – and we’d have to look at hiring back expertise that was relocated to other groups on campus or into industry. Those costs, are not insignificant. The complexity of running Moodle or Sakai at scale for 25,000 to 30,000 users, isn’t lost on me. It’d be a great challenge. I don’t know that this will be palatable to the campus either as we’ve had people who were running their own Moodle install come over to use the institution’s provided install of D2L. Maybe that’s the path of least resistance? Maybe it’s the students pushing for one platform? Who knows.

4. Do away with the LMS. This is an entirely radical idea, but what if we just left it up to instructors to do it themselves? I’d be ok in this scenario, despite having this a huge part of my job description, because there’s always going to be technology to use to teach. I’d have to adjust. Would this even fly? Probably not. Imagine the headlines: “first University to do away with the LMS”… would be useful to put on my tombstone after everyone lynches me because they need a secure webpage to link their stuff to.

As a teaching and learning centre, we’ll be interested in finding something flexible to teach not only in the modes that people currently teach in, but also in the pedagogy that people want to teach in. All LMS’s say they can do constructivist style setups, but really they require changes globally to do so. No one gives the instructor the power to turn on or off student control of a slice of content, or a discussion, or even a collaborative space for document sharing. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that all LMS’s are designed as content delivery tools, not knowledge construction tools. And to that end, the choice of tools that can be used is often controlled by LMS administrators, not the instructors. Now, there’s great reasons for structuring things in such a way; theoretically administrators have subject matter expertise in selecting partners to connect to the LMS and have experience with vetting vendors. Right? I hope so. I know I’ve tried my best to make sure I’ve done right for student’s privacy, intellectual property and general safe digital space. I don’t know what I don’t know though. I guess, through the next three years, I’ll start to find out.

Digital Marginalia

A collection of links, notes, and things I’ve seen in the last little while that are too long for a tweet but too short for a full blog post unto themselves…

First, and most importantly to me, the soundtrack to this update the brilliant 13th Floor Elevators (and particularly, Roky Erikson’s great solo version of Two Headed Dog):

I updated my laptop to Windows 10 – I primarily use the laptop for checking e-mail, writing more than a tweet, constructing a drum beat or using Word 2007. The process was smooth for a laptop that’s close to 6 years old and has 4 gig RAM and 320 gig hard drive. However, here’s a series of Windows 10 related links that will be of benefit to those who wish to better understand what this upgrade means. The first outlines the new features of the OS. The second has to do with blocking auto-updates. The third has to do with privacy settings, which we all should be interested in.

I’ve been working off and on over the summer with our student centre trying to think of ways badging could work as a co-curricular record for students. I don’t know that we’re much further, but we are going to try some things over the next year and see how they work. I’m interested in ways that we can empower students to grant badges to other students, especially when those badges might contain institutional imagery. How can we ensure that people don’t misunderstand what the badge means and that it’s a peer issued badge? Lots and lots of stuff to unpack there.

While in training this week, Carpe Diem learning design was mentioned. I didn’t inquire further, but I did some looking further into it. It strikes me as neat, but prone to my faulty brain labelling it Caveat Emptor learning design, which has a whole separate implication. I would recommend not using Caveat Emptor learning design, if it exists.

I didn’t go to Brightspace Fusion/User Conference this year because a) I hate Orlando, and b) the hotel was not within public transportation/walking distance of anything nearby. I did however have my twitter feed blow up for a couple hours when I got mentioned by my good friend Barry. I’m actually speechless about this still (almost two months later!) – it’s honoring and humbling to have others say such nice things about me.  Thank you to you all.

Work = Life = ePorfolios

Even though it’s the weekend, it’s August 8. This is my work anniversary. So I’ll be taking a moment to write about work while I enjoy the evening.

After a long discussion with my direct boss, we decided that I needed to stop doing everything that I do and focus on doing a few things. I can say that it’s a good idea, I’m a bit of a control freak. If you’ve worked with anyone like me, you’ve probably been witness to someone who has opinions, shares them with the drop of a hat, and will doggedly defend those beliefs and continue to circle back to fight for them again and again. Where this becomes a problem is when I feel the insane need to do everything. Redesign training? Check. Read the 100+ page document about the LMS upgrade? Check. Dissect it and rewrite it for our campus? Check. Update websites? Check.

I honestly do want other people to feel they have room to do work without me jumping into what they do. I like to think I’m a good person, and I fully recognize my flaws (and this is a big one). I’d also like to think that I’ve tried to make room for others to do stuff. Maybe I haven’t been as effective in doing that, I don’t know as I can’t speak to how others feel. So I’ve vowed to step back from the LMS administration side of things to focus on the ePortfolio and badging projects that we have going.

Now, if you pay attention to LMS’s you’ll know that D2L announced that their badging service will be available for clients on continuous delivery (Brightspace version 10.4 and higher) starting September 2015. We’re also expanding the number of University wide ePortfolio software solutions from just the D2L ePortfolio tool, adding another to complement where D2L eP is weak. There’s not been an official announcement, however we’ve started internal training and I should be writing about the process of getting this other software up and running as I think it’ll be quite an accomplishment in the time frames we have set.

Now you may wonder where the D2L ePortfolio tool is weak?

Well, first, let me give you two caveats. One, I’ve given this information to our account manager and I know for a fact it’s gone up the chain to D2L CEO John Baker. I think we’ll see improvements in the tool over the next while. I’m cautiously optimistic that by this time next year D2L’s ePortfolio tool will be improved, with that I keep an interested eye on the Product Idea Exchange inside the Brightspace Community, for developments. The other caveat, is that we’re using ePortfolios in such a way that we want to leverage social opportunities for reflective practice. Frankly this wasn’t something that we knew when we started with ePortfolios, and hence wasn’t part of our initial needs.

OK the weaknesses from my perspective).

1. The visual appeal of the tool is challenged. The web portfolios that are created are OK looking. It needs a visual design overhaul. Many aspects of the tool still bear the visual look of pre-version 10 look of D2L’s products. It also needs to be able to be intuitive to use for students, and part of that falls on the visual arrangement of tools. There’s three sections of the ePortfolio dashboard where you can do “stuff” (menus, the quick reflection box and on the right hand side for filling out forms and other ephemera). I totally understand why you need complexity for a complex tool – especially one designed to be multi-purpose.

2. Learning goals, which is a huge part of reflective practice, are not built into the portfolio process. You can, yes, create an artifact that could represent your learning goal, and associate other artifacts as evidence of achieving that goal – but I’d ask you to engage in doing that process as a user to see why it’s problematic. Many, many clicks.

3. There is a distinct silo effect between the academic side and the personal side of things. If we extrapolate our learning goals to be equivalent to learning outcomes (and I feel they should be) – those learning goals are still artifacts and outcomes/competencies pulled from the courses are labelled something else. Again, I don’t think the design of the ePortfolio tool is aimed at this idea, however, if we’re serious about student centred learning, shouldn’t we be serious about what the student wants to get out of this experience, and treat what they want out of the experience, whatever that is, at the same level as what teachers, or accreditation bodies, or departments, or schools feel they should know?

4. Too many clicks to do things. Six clicks to upload a file as an artifact is too many.

5. Group portfolios are possible, but so challenging to do, that we’ve instituted a best practice that you organize it socially and make one person responsible for collecting artifacts and submitting the portfolio presentation. Even if you want to take on the challenge, when you share a presentation with another person and give them edit rights, the tool still doesn’t let you edit in the sense that you would expect the word edit to mean. You can add your stuff to the presentation, but can’t do squat with anything else in the presentation. In some ways it makes sense, but functionally it’s a nightmare. What if your group member is a total tool and puts their about me stuff on the wrong page? What if they made an error that you catch, why do you have to make them fix it instead of the sensible thing and being able to fix it yourself?

With all that said, people tend to like the tool once they figure it out. The problem is, that many don’t get past that hurdle without help, and there’s only so much help to go around.

Why Are Systems Administrators for the LMS Such Dicks?

Full disclosure. I’m an LMS administrator, and I’m probably a dick. I will say, in my defense, that I’ve never set up a system from scratch, but have contributed to configuration discussions, so I’ve been close to the decisions that get made in configuring a system, I’ve never had to do it.  I have, however, had the opportunity to change the system and still have not, for many legitimate reasons. However, the controls that we could configure to be adjusted by the end user, in all practicality cannot be configured in that way due to the constraints of the software. The only platform that could be configured in such a way was First Class, which wasn’t an LMS, but a communication platform for collaboration (think SharePoint, but functional).

What if faculty could choose the tools they wanted, and essentially plug them into a system that housed their content and managed the enrollments? I don’t see this as any different than a faculty member choosing a textbook – however, the education system and people like me, LMS administrators and educational technology advocates everywhere, have made choices like this all but impossible because of the infantilism of faculty. We often treat faculty like they couldn’t, or shouldn’t make these choices. As educational technology professionals, we often just espouse what we think in much the same way a parent lectures their children. We talk about ways that technology should be used, instead of fostering a culture of creativity, we actually work against it in the interests of managing technology.

And there’s the ugly word: management. Systems administrator aren’t just administering systems, but really they’re administering people, and administering access to information. Some parties (students) shouldn’t have access to each other’s courses, so that’s a constraint on what we can do – especially if a system wasn’t (gasp) designed for it. Some parties (faculty) shouldn’t have access to each other’s courses to preserve intellectual property – the only capital they have under neoliberalism.

While we may be justified in many cases in saying that faculty don’t always look out for the finer details of educational technology (like privacy, or data collection, or accessibility) – it’s not because they couldn’t. I often wonder if we stopped running workshops on how to use the tools we support in place of teaching what the considerations are for using tools if faculty could be encouraged to take responsibility for their own teaching spaces?

Could institutions feasibly support hundreds of tools? Of course not, but instead of training people how to use tools, we should be training people how to select tools that respect user’s privacy, meet their needs and most of all, help students learn. Really it’s that simple.

What If… We Made the LMS Truly Modular?

I think we all understand that the LMS as a tool is a pretty cruddy one. It does a lot of things, some well, many not in ways that you, as an instructor would prefer. At last year’s Fusion conference, we heard D2L speak about their LTI integrations, and how Brightspace was the integrated learning platform. I’ve heard that many people envision what D2L are selling as a hub and spoke system – where Brightspace (or the Learning Environment, or even more crudely, the LMS) acts as a hub – and the tools connected are the spokes. I wonder what things would look like if we extrapolate that idea out to the nth degree?

For instance, you could replace the gradebook with a tool that worked for you – Google Spreadsheets, Excel online, or a box plot device. Chalk and Wire has replaced Canvas’ gradebook in one instance, and I’m sure that the inefficient tools of any LMS are things that one would want to replace. Does that mean the all of them? For some snarky folks, yeah, that would mean all of them. Those folks should just teach in the open web.

The LMS also provides a fairly elegant way to get student data into your course area. That’s probably something instructors or faculty wouldn’t want to do. Hell, I’m glad we have someone on my team that wants to do it because it’s an ugly job.

And for many, the content management of these systems are pretty good. In D2L’s case, the way the content tool works is pretty decent (now if hide an item means really hide any evidence of the item, we’re talking). Imagine if you could take elements of one system you like (say Angel) and add-in features to allow for customization for the individual course needs?

Or how about replacing the groups tool with some other mechanism?  Quizzing is something that people already are pushing to publishers like Pearson or McGraw Hill, but what about up and comers like Top Hat or Poll Everywhere (which, lets face it, is essentially a quiz engine wrapped in a polling tool)? Discussions become a Disqus link at the bottom of a item in the content area… there’s lots of clever fun to be had with this idea.

Now to some extent, you can do this already (depending on how locked down your system is by your systems administrators). Change the navigation bars to point to tools you use connected through LTI – however you have some issues with doing this yourself. The biggest one is that at some point, you’ll run into some technological problem that you can’t solve easily. I suspect, that’s what the Internet is for.

At some point one (or many) of you will point out quite rightly, that this sounds an awful lot like what the web is (or more accurately, was). And my answer is yeah, that’s about right. Used to have websites that we plugged bits of HTML into to make what we needed. Until it was commodified.

You can probably draw a comparison to the modern LMS to Facebook – mostly everyone uses it but would probably use a better system if everyone else went to it first. Universities would consider another model as long as everyone will come along. However, in the current higher education system, where we have seasonal and precarious work dominating instructional positions – there’s no time or want to develop a better way. The LMS works as a co-conspirator in the commodification of education. It’s not directly responsible, but it plays a  part in making education at university an easily packaged and consumed affair. The LMS isn’t alone, Coursera, Udacity, those type of MOOCs are equally complicit, or maybe even moreso.

And that’s a more likely reason we’ll see a modular LMS. More vendors get opportunities to get into different institutions that aren’t their current clients.

i>Clicker Integration with D2L/Brightspace

I’m sure i>Clicker won’t be particularly happy with this post, that’s ok, because I’m not happy with them. The one thing as an LMS administrator that you should feel very, very sanctimonious about is sharing data. We have an internal policy that we’ll never share student numbers. I also think that we shouldn’t share usernames, however some folks feel that’s ok. I guess it depends on your username convention. First dot last as a convention is great, except in these cases when you’re trying to maintain privacy. Now, if you’re making a single sign on connection through LTI, you can have the originating LMS username obfuscated, which essentially boils down to a paired database table that has two usernames in it – the one handed off to the third party via LTI, and the one in the LMS. Typically, I’m a little bristly about this as well, because you become reliant on the system not changing how this is handled, and if there’s an HTTP call mixed in there, it still could be sniffed out while in transit… but that’s not what this post is about.

Since last year, I’ve been bugged by i>Clicker to do an integration to make sign-up with their service seamless for students. There has been some requests for integration between i>Clicker and the gradebook in D2L from some of the more heavy users. The first request, I’ve always put off because, frankly, I don’t do anything a private enterprise wants me to do, they aren’t my boss, nor are they a member of my community. They serve one purpose, and that’s collecting money. The second, however, does benefit a select user group on campus. We were thinking about this since last year’s summer of integration, and April had a couple minutes free (more on that in forthcoming blog posts), so we scheduled some time to finally make it happen.

We schedule a call, to walk us through the integration and see if there’s anything that we have questions about. I don’t need anyone to walk me through an integration, but I often like to raise privacy, data collection policies, and other awkward questions to the poor sucker who’s on the end of the other line. Typically they are ill informed. I didn’t even get to the awkward stage, as a request was made that was frankly shocking. I was asked to turn on passing the Org Defined ID – or our student number – to facilitate the connection. Not just at the tool level, but at the configuration for the Tool Information. See below:

config_tool_consumer (1) Now if I understand this panel correctly, it not only changes the configuration settings for the tool in question, but for all the tools. ALL the tools. So not only i>Clicker, but anything else you have connected through using the External Learning Tools administration panel. I asked our technical account manager about changing it, and he basically said, “yeah, that’s not good.”

So in the middle of this exchange where I explain how we don’t pass the student number under any circumstances, the i>Clicker representative seemed to be a little miffed about my protests. He wasn’t particularly nasty about it, but certainly didn’t seem to understand why this was an issue at all. Looking at i>Clicker’s website, students are asked for their ID. It’s different asking a student to give them their ID (consent) and setting up access to everyone’s ID (no consent).

What makes me wonder is, how many other institutions even give this a thought? Surely we can’t be the first person to balk at the idea of handing over student data like this? Or maybe we are being too paranoid? I mean, I guess there’s people who have faith in the third-party vendors, but I’d prefer having a license, stating exactly what they are doing with data, how they’re using it, how long it’s retained and an agreement signed between the two parties. That way if the external party violates the agreement, the institution can hold them liable for the data breech – something a little stiffer than “oops”.